Thursday, April 19, 2012

High School Sports and Educational Budgets: Evidence Please

In a commentary at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Conn argues forcefully against sports in educational institutions. Conn, a professor of history at Ohio State University, makes some claims that are just begging for empirical support.

For instance, he asserts that financial support of high school sports may be a key factor in explaining poor academic performance of US students.  He writes:
There is a widespread consensus that our public-education systems are in serious trouble. But amid the conflicting diagnoses of the problem—teacher training, standardized testing, socioeconomic conditions—we have missed this obvious one: The growth of high-school athletics over the past generation has necessarily meant fewer resources devoted to academics, especially in the zero-sum budgetary environment of so many school districts. How many other educational systems pay for sports out of their education funds?
Strong claims should be backed up by evidence, and since Conn did not provide any, I looked into the subject.  I found little evidence to support the argument that support of high school sports has come at the expense of academics. To the contrary, there is more concern being expressed that cuts to sports budgets, as part of overall cuts to education, is limiting the ability of many to participate in sports as sports opportunities increasingly go to those who can "pay to play."

The US GAO recently released a report that looked at data through 2006 on school-based physical education and sports programs (here in PDF). It found that schools had turned to outside funding to mitigate budget cuts:
[S]chool officials reported challenges in providing sports opportunities, as issues related to transportation, facilities, and staffing have been compounded by budgetary constraints. For example, officials from some schools said funding to transport students to outside facilities for practices or games was limited. Other school officials cited difficulty in attracting quality coaches because of low pay and the large amount of time involved. Even so, some schools have mitigated some challenges related to sports by relying heavily on outside funding sources such as booster clubs and gate receipts and leveraging community facilities. Additionally, some schools charge student fees for sports activities, which may be a barrier for lower-income students.
Looking at more recent data, Up2Us, a non-profit focused on youth in sport, argues in a recent report (here in PDF), based on research conducted by Brian Greenwood, professor at California State Polytechnic University, that high school sports saw,
an estimated $1.5 billion in cuts for the 2010-2011 school year and an estimated 40 percent of school districts charging fees to play sports, or “pay-to-play” fees.
None of this data supports the claims advanced by Conn, and may even counter his arguments. Clearly better evidence is needed to assess trends in public funding for sports vs. academics.

It is certainly worthwhile to debate the role of sports in educational institutions, including their costs, their benefits and their proper role. However, such debates will not get very far if they are not based on solid data and evidence.

1 comment:

  1. As you say solid data is needed for claims like these. However, as someone with more of a European background, I've always had trouble comprehending the U.S. emphasis on sports in the education system, and the craziness surrounding high school and college sports teams! Seems like overkill to me. We get a sense that many students are rewarded more for their athletic prowess than their grades in school, which is a bit backward since they are supposedly there to get an education! I don't deny the benefits of sports, Mens sana in corpora sana, but it shouldn't be considered at the same level as their schooling!